True Colors

I recently wrote about a great chemical engineering course offered at Stanford that teaches students about the science of art materials. This year, as a course requirement, students were asked to propose ideas for an exhibition that involved concepts from the class. Of the 15 student proposals, True Colors was chosen by the staff at Cantor Arts Center to be installed in the Gibbons gallery in March 2011. This exhibition will be funded in part by the Stanford Initiative for Creativity in the Arts (SiCa).

A painted replica of a c. 490 B.C.E. archer. For more information, and the source of this image, see the Smithsonian Magazine:

True Colors is an exhibition about polychromy in ancient Greek sculpture. Although we commonly think of stark white marble sculptures of Greek gods and goddesses as a signature of ancient Greek culture, these color-free statues were not the artists’ original intent. Before thousands of years of weathering and “cleaning,” these sculptures were brightly painted, almost garishly so. Scholars like archaeologist Dr. Vinzenz Brinkmann have been actively trying to correct the public’s misperception of ancient Greek sculpture. He has put together exhibitions at several museums in Europe and the U. S. that juxtapose original Greek statuary with painted replicas. The paint on the replicas is based on chemical analysis of trace amounts of paint discovered on the originals. When it came time to propose an exhibition for class that would creatively blend concepts in art and chemistry, the polychromy of ancient Greek sculpture was a great topic to choose.


One of the authors of the winning proposal, Ivy, is spending her summer preparing for the exhibition. Ivy just finished her freshman year at Stanford and is pursuing a degree in chemical engineering. Her chemistry background will come in handy as she attempts to analyze a Greek sculpture from the Cantor Arts Center’s collection for traces of pigments. She plans to conduct this analysis on campus with the help and expertise found in various scientific departments. After she has identified some of the original colors of the sculpture, she will use a 3D scanner to create a 3D CAD file of the sculpture. This will allow her to use rapid prototyping to create two replicas. The first replica she will paint with the pigments she identified on the original. Because the pigments she finds will likely be insufficient to provide enough pigment data to paint the whole sculpture, a second replica will be painted based on an educated guess of what the original work looked like. Ivy has an exciting summer ahead of her and will be making some of her own posts about her progress.

A portrait of Roman emperor Caligula and a color reconstruction by Brinkmann.

5 responses to “True Colors

  1. Pingback: True Colors: Trends in Conservation « Cross Sections·

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  4. Pingback: Polychrome Sculpture: Kitschy or Credible? | Karl Edwards·

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